Finding the Light 

Richmond author explores grief in her debut novel set in the 1930s.

click to enlarge Writer Rachel Beanland worked full-time at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond while completing her debut novel.

Writer Rachel Beanland worked full-time at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond while completing her debut novel.

Author Rachel Beanland’s debut novel, “Florence Adler Swims Forever,” is a generational story told with great wit and intensity.

Published in early July and based on the true story of her great-great-aunt, the book follows the extended Adler family in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the summer of 1934.

A beloved daughter, Florence, drowns while training to swim the English Channel. Meanwhile, Florence’s sister, Fannie, is pregnant and in the hospital on bed rest and the family “makes the difficult decision to keep Florence’s death a secret from Fannie, at least until she has delivered a healthy baby,” explains the author.

It’s a story about how one can become locked into a distorted truth, even with good intentions, but ultimately must bear the pain that comes. Multiple characters become complicit in the grandmother’s decision to keep the news from her daughter, while trying to manage their own afflictions. The truth unfolds through the perspectives of different protagonists, offering a beautifully imagined portrait of an era of reckoning. We begin to question our own motives if we were in similar circumstances.

Style Weekly recently caught up with Beanland, who shared her thoughts on writing and publishing historical fiction during the tumultuous present.

Style Weekly: The title, cover, and much of the story typify a great summer read and, though the novel touches on complex situations, it is also uplifting and hopeful. I imagine your publisher didn't anticipate a major pandemic?

Rachel Beanland: The novel is based on a true story in my family and I always knew I wanted the book’s focus to be, not so much on Florence’s death, but on everything that came after it. It’s really a book about grief, but I worked hard to infuse it with light and laughter because, in my experience, that’s how grief works. We look for ways to release our sorrow.

The pandemic has definitely made publishing my first novel more interesting. If there’s one thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised by, it’s that the novel has found an extremely receptive audience. In 2020, all of us are grieving something, so maybe it’s reassuring to read along as the Adler family combats their own anguish with love and even a little humor.

What challenges did you face to be both accurate to the story and true to the artistry of fiction writing?

With the exception of [character] Gussie, who is modeled after my grandmother, I didn’t personally know any of the family members who I fictionalized in this novel. This made it easier for me to immediately think of them as fictional characters with their own wants and needs.

When I began writing the book, I did as much research as I possibly could. I interviewed my grandmother, searched old newspapers for reports of Florence’s drowning, visited the cemetery where she was buried, and even found the log where the Atlantic City beach patrol had recorded her death. But once I had those details, I gave myself permission to deviate from them. While I wanted to honor the real Florence’s life and legacy, I never forgot that what I was trying to do was create a compelling work of fiction.

What are some of the nonpandemic challenges you've had to face as a debut novelist?

I would assume they’re the same challenges that all first-time novelists encounter. You worry that selling your book was a fluke and that it will somehow never make its way to market. Or that there’s some glaring error in it. That it will be poorly reviewed. Or that it won’t sell. The list goes on and on. Whenever I’ve felt anxious, I’ve tried to recall the quiet mornings when I was writing the book and had no one to answer to but myself. Back then, “Florence Adler Swims Forever” was just a Word document on my laptop but I believed in it completely. When I think about it like that, I realize that nothing’s really changed.

Has the pandemic changed the way you're looking at new writing?

It’s funny because I wrote [the book] during a period in my life in which I was busier than ever. I was working full-time at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, raising three kids and attending grad school part time at Virginia Commonwealth University. I used to set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before I woke the kids and got us all out of the house. Now, I’ve finished my MFA and am writing full time, but as a result of the pandemic, my whole family’s at home, 24 hours a day. This means I’m still waking up at the crack of dawn, trying to get my writing in while the house is quiet. … I try to remind myself that it’s enough right now to be paying attention and to be attempting to make meaning from the world around me.

As a Richmonder, do you feel a connection and appreciation for the [social] changes that need to be made? Do you feel a responsibility to respond in some way?

It’s been a thrilling time to live in Richmond, and I’m excited to see the city I love finally reckoning with its painful history. We still have a lot of work to do, but as we re-imagine our monuments and how we tell our stories, there are going to be so many fabulous opportunities for artists to play a role in shaping the city’s narrative.

“Florence Adler Swims Forever” is a piece of historical fiction. And while I don’t know that I’ll always write historical fiction, I do love the fact that the postmodern historical novel is focused on destabilizing our ideas of history, rather than upholding them. Like many writers who are working in this space, I’m attracted to telling the stories we haven’t read before.


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